In any field development, it is important to identify reservoir
structure, heterogeneity, rock properties, and fluid charac-
teristics to lay down an optimal development strategy to
enhance production and increase recovery in the most cost-
effective way. As such, detailed reservoir description and
characterization using geophysical, geological and engineering
data are required. This article discusses how a condensate
rich, high flow capacity, and high sanding deep gas reservoir
was gradually developed and optimized to select the most
appropriate drilling and completion technique using available
geological, geomechanical and reservoir data.
Saudi Arabia’s SA-1 field produces from the ‘Unayzah
formation, which is Permian in age, and is subdivided into
three stratigraphic units. The lower ‘Unayzah-B and -C units
present in the SA-1 area are dominated by generally tight,
quartzose sandstones with rare siltstone intervals that are
ascribed to deposition in lake fluvial dominated environments.
The ‘Unayzah-A is composed of sandstones and variable
amounts of siltstones that were deposited in an arid, eolian
dominated environment. ‘Unayzah-A is prolific, offers high
reservoir quality, and is prone to sand production due to its
highly unconsolidated nature. The first well penetrating the
‘Unayzah-A in 1997 showed excellent reservoir development.
Cores were collected from this well and subsequently from
other wells, which confirmed the unconsolidation of reservoir
rock with low Young’s modulus and compressive strength
To avoid sanding during production, the wells were initially
completed as vertical wells with frac pac stimulation using
premium screens. Even though some difficulties were
encountered during frac pac installation, the strategy was used
in the first few wells. With the advancement of technology in
both drilling and completion, the development method
gradually shifted to drilling horizontal and/or highly slanted
holes. This method eliminated the need for deploying the frac
pac system, substantially increased reservoir contact and
proved higher well performance. To protect well integrity and
eliminate sand production, premium expandable sand screens
(ESSs) were selected for completing the wells. The overall
strategy significantly improved the SA-1 field development
program. Higher sustained gas rates were achieved due to the
reduction of non-Darcy skin, sanding was eliminated, and risk
related to the deployment of completion equipment (i.e., the
ESS) was reduced. ESS completions are attractive in open hole
wells for their easy-to-use applications, and since they have no
proppant or sand pack filter system, ESS completions result in
low or zero skin factor.
Currently, the SA-1 field is producing with wells that have
high rates, on the order of 20 million standard cubic feet per
day (MMscfd) - 50 MMscfd. With a high condensate level in
this field (more than 400 bbl/MMscfd), the wells have
experienced a low to moderate decline; the reduction in
reservoir pressure has been steady and within expected limits.
Improved reservoir contact from horizontals has decreased
pressure drop near the well, has decreased the rate of
condensate dropout, and has improved overall well potential
and reservoir performance. Initially, the drilled vertical wells
that were facing some production decline due to the
deterioration of the frac pac screen and proppant conductivity
are now being sidetracked and completed with an ESS system.
Completing wells in high sanding environments raises several
major risks that are not faced in more competent formations.
In most cases, the risks and costs associated with remedial
actions are significant in deep and high temperature regions
The risks can be summarized as:
• Loss of integrity or productivity due to selection of a
non-optimal completion technique.
• Loss of integrity downhole or at the surface due to
continuous sand production.
• Production or reserve losses due to the inability to
recover damaged wells.
• Building up of scales and screen plugging materials,
• Deterioration of screens due to corrosion/erosion.
Frac pac installations have been widely used by the
industry to prevent sand production. Such installations are
suited for laminated sands or stacked pay sections where the
combination of stimulation and sand control is needed. For
improved productivity and much larger reservoir contact,
SAUDI ARAMCO JOURNAL OF TECHNOLOGY FALL 2010 47
Selection of Completion Strategy for Sand
Control and Optimal Production Rate – Field
Examples from Saudi Arabia’s ‘Unayzah
Authors: Dr. Zillur Rahim, Bandar H. Al-Malki and Adnan A. Al-Kanaan
48 FALL 2010 SAUDI ARAMCO JOURNAL OF TECHNOLOGY
consolidation (resins and epoxies), oriented perforations
(toward maximum stress direction), and the implementation
of frac pac or gravel pack stimulation
EXPANDABLE SAND SCREEN DEPLOYMENT
The ESS is specially designed to be expanded in the wellbore
to fit the wellbore diameter. It has a relatively modest strength
due to its slotted construction. The ESS consists of three
simple elements: expandable base pipe, filtration media and
expandable protective shroud. The ESS base pipe is a robust
expandable slotted tube (EST), which is capable of expanding
up to 60% in diameter. The base EST provides a large inflow
area for the produced fluids. Typically, inflow areas for an
expandable EST are 30% - 60%, depending on the ex -
pandable diameter of the ESS (sand control for unconsoli dated
reservoirs). The protective shroud ensures that the filter
medium is not damaged while running the completion. The
increase of the system’s internal diameter (ID) after the
expansion, Fig. 1, results in improved productivity
, Fig. 2.
Figure 3 shows an example of an unconsolidated ‘Unayzah-
A sand core. This type of formation has a very high flow
drilling horizontal or slanted wells and completing them with
sand screens is a popular and effective option for the industry.
The expandable sand screen (ESS) application provides the
operator the ability to selectively complete and produce from
multiple intervals and considerably reduces the inefficiency
and risks associated with frac pac completions, which require
careful consideration of pumping and proppant handling
The inflow performance of high rate gas wells is often
controlled by turbulent flow effects in the near wellbore
region. These effects result in large non-Darcy skin factors,
especially in frac pac or gravel pack wells, which can sub -
stantially reduce well productivity. Use of the ESS eliminates
the gravel pack region around the screen in the annulus,
resulting in a larger wellbore diameter and improved
The drivers for the ESSs are as follows:
• Reduced logistics and risks during the installation phase
– no need for a mud system change.
• Operational flexibility and reduced cost.
• Elimination of the need for a multistage cased hole
• Improved sand control as the ESS maintains well
integrity, and stabilizes and supports the borehole.
• Maximum reservoir contact (MRC) by drilling slanted
wells – therefore improved flow rate.
• Isolation of intervals as needed, and the setting of the
completion for above the gas-water contact (GWC),
delaying the water coning effect.
• Considerable reduction of turbulent flow, therefore
much reduced non-Darcy flow effects.
• Increased hole size, with no annulus space, therefore a
large open area allowing a higher production rate.
In Saudi Aramco’s SA-1 field, the completion strategy was
changed from frac pac to ESS for many of the reasons
previously mentioned. The improved well recovery has shown
the benefit of the ESS completion strategy. Wells that were
initially completed with frac pac are now being sidetracked
and converted to the ESS completion system.
ROCK STRENGTH AND SAND CONTROL
Rock strength is influenced by the physical and elastic prop -
erties of the rocks. Well logs, such as sonic and density, as
well as core tests, are used to assess rock strength
strength along with a dynamic modeling of geomechanical
properties dictate if sanding will occur during the life of a
well. Sanding must be identified, quantified, and reduced or
eliminated to achieve optimal gas production. Several major
sand control mechanisms used in the petroleum industry
include mechanical retention systems (sand screens), plastic
Fig. 1. Sand screen in expansion mode.
Fig. 2. Increased gas rate with bigger wellbore radius.
0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35
Gas Rate, MMscfd
capacity as well as sanding tendency and requires sand control
devices for production. Figure 4 shows the improved production
achieved from a horizontal well over vertical frac pac wells,
which offers an incentive to drill horizontal wells and complete
them with sand screens.
STRATEGIES FOR SAND CONTROL
Based on testing cores in the laboratory and the calibration of
their geomechanical properties with field data, Saudi Aramco
has developed a comprehensive sand prediction model to
predict reservoir mechanical properties and safe drawdown
pressure for any given formation and field. Due to the
nonlinear nature of sanding, field measurements to quantify
the amount of sand produced as a function of gas rate and
pressures provided important calibration coefficients that were
integrated in the model.
Depending on the sanding tendency and intensity, different
techniques are adopted for the development and production of
deep unconsolidated gas reservoirs to obtain a high sand free
rate. The method adopted to develop the SA-1 field is to drill
horizontal or highly slanted wells to achieve MRC, maintain
at least a 50 ft true vertical depth (TVD) standoff from the
regional GWC level, and complete the well with an ESS. The
screen size, mesh, and quality are preselected based on
complete sieve and geomechanical analysis of formation sand
to ensure sand prevention, high gas flow, and screen integrity
during the production life of the field.
The prevailing industry view is that sand control com -
pletions, such as frac pac and ESS completions, improve
reliability compared to open hole or cased hole and perforated
completions. The risk is not only that sand production, may
not be handled by the surface chokes and facilities, but also
that it may lead to completion failure and overall impact on
the production system. The main options for managing sand
and mitigating risks can be summarized as:
• Produce Well at Current Conditions: Adapt to the
sanding situation by replacing equipment that is
damaged as frequently as needed. This choice is usually
impractical and results in a high maintenance cost.
• Bean Back: Reduce production on individual wells and
establish the sand free rate or the acceptable sand rate.
• Surface Solution: Install a de-sander and remove sand as
it is produced before it impacts the facilities. This choice
is time consuming and also entails a high maintenance
• Downhole Solution:
o Shut-off of sand producing intervals. This should
only be implemented if other measures fail.
o Installation of downhole sand control devices –
method implemented in SA-1 field by Saudi Aramco.
o Recompletion/sidetracking of well toward no sanding
areas. This may not be easy, and bears much
FORMATION CHARACTERIZATION AND DEVELOPING
Rock strength is the most critical factor in determining the
sanding tendency of a formation. Rock strength properties
depend largely on the bounding type and quality of solid
particles (solid bonds in the case of igneous rocks, cemen -
tation for consolidated sediments, cohesion for clay, and
friction for cohesionless unconsolidated sediments like sand
and gravel) and the internal structure of the skeleton rock. In
addition, strength depends on porosity and fluid content.
To design an effective completion for sand control, rigorous
characterization and modeling of the ‘Unayzah-A reservoir has
been performed. Rock mechanical properties, such as Young’s
modulus, Poisson’s ratio and unconfined compressive strength
(UCS), have been correlated with the reservoir porosity and
open hole log data. The sand consolidation can be seen from
the sonic shear and compressional travel velocity plot, Fig. 5.
This plot is further related to the UCS values and is calibrated
with the measured data, Fig. 6. Reservoir porosity is also
related to UCS values
, Fig. 7.
The final objective of geomechanical modeling is to provide
a dependable in-situ stress profile and predict sanding
SAUDI ARAMCO JOURNAL OF TECHNOLOGY FALL 2010 49
Fig. 3. ‘Unayzah-A core exhibiting loose sand.
Fig. 4. Impact of horizontal well on production.
0 500 1,000 1,500 2,000 2,500 3,000 3,500 4,000
Production Time, Days
and Table 1 present the pressure buildup (PBU) test analysis
and results showing high potential (flow capacity, kh = 10,800
md-ft) and negligible skin factor.
As a comparison, a PBU test analysis from a vertical frac
pac well, Fig. 12 and Table 2, shows how it is affected by the
high skin factor (S = 20). This well has a higher flow capacity
(kh = 20,000 md-ft), and therefore is capable of flowing at a
very high rate if the skin factor is reduced. On rare occasions,
a frac pac well, such as Well-1B, shows a negative skin factor,
Fig. 13 and Table 3. Consequently, the frac pac can only be
implemented in vertical wells; the gain due to drilling
horizontals for increased reservoir contact is therefore lost.
Another example of a slanted wellbore with a sand screen
completion is Well-2. This well was drilled as a pilot hole first
and then as a lateral sidetrack with a 55° inclination
contacting 450 ft of net pay section in the ‘Unayzah-A
reservoir. Modular dynamic testing (MDT) was conducted
throughout the entire drilled section and fluid samples were
collected. The gas measurements showed an increased fluid
gradient, indicating gas saturated with condensate. The entire
reservoir section was completed with an ESS. Subsequently,
the well was cleaned up and tested at a sand free rate of 16
MMscfd at 4,350 psi of flowing wellhead pressure (FWHP),
indicating a very high potential for the reservoir. Figures 14
and 15 illustrate the MDT points, open hole logs and
Inflow performance curves for a few horizontal wells
completed with an ESS are presented in Fig. 16. The high,
sand free production rates achieved from all of these wells
SAUDI ARAMCO JOURNAL OF TECHNOLOGY FALL 2010 51
Fig. 11. PBU analysis for Well-1 (horizontal, with screen completion).
0.001 0.01 0.1 1 10 100 1000
Fig. 12. PBU analysis for Well-1A (vertical, with frac pac completion).
0.001 0.01 0.1 1 10 100 1000
Fig. 13. PBU analysis for Well-1B (vertical, with frac pac completion).
0.001 0.01 0.1 1 10 100 1000
Table 1. PBU analysis results for Well-1
Reservoir Contact = 1,556 ft
Test Rate = 32 MMscfd at 7,085 psi
kh = 10,800 md-ft
Skin = 1.5
dS/dQ = 0.05 MMscf/d
Test Rate = 24 MMscfd at 7,000 Skin = 3
Table 2. PBU analysis results for Well-1A
Reservoir Contact = 140 ft (vertical well)
Test Rate = 12 MMscfd at 4,100 psi
kh = 20,000 md-ft
Skin = 20.0
dS/dQ = 0.1 MMscf/d
Table 3. PBU analysis results for Well-1B
Reservoir Contact = 80 ft (vertical well)
Test Rate = 10 MMscfd at 5,450 psi
kh = 1,570 md-ft
Skin = 1.5
dS/dQ = 0.1 MMscf/d
Fig. 14. MDT pressure points and reservoir development of Well-2 in the
Gradient 0.13 psi/ft
Gradient 0.167 psi/ft
Gradient 0.245 psi/ft
Gradient 0.268 psi/ft
52 FALL 2010 SAUDI ARAMCO JOURNAL OF TECHNOLOGY
4. Drilling horizontal or slanted wells and using an ESS in the
‘Unayzah-A reservoir has been proven as an excellent
technology for sand control, production optimization, and
achieving long-term sustained rates.
5. An ESS offers well integrity, negligible skin damage, and
reduced non-Darcy flow effects.
6. Slanted and horizontal MRC wells can only be completed
with sand screens. Therefore, use of an ESS in such wells is
the only viable option.
The authors wish to thank Saudi Aramco management for
their support and permission to present the information
contained in this article. Thanks are also due to the engineers
who struggled hard to implement this procedure in the field to
ensure high rates and optimal reservoir depletion.
1. Addis, M.A., Gunningham, M.C., Brassart, P., Webers,
J., Subhi, H. and Hother, J.A.: “Sand Quantification:
The Impact on Sandface Completion Selection and
Design, Facilities Design, and Risk Evaluation,” SPE
paper 116713, presented at the SPE Annual Technical
Conference and Exhibition, Denver, Colorado,
September 21-24, 2008.
2. Khaksar, A., Taylor, P.G., Fang, Z., Kayes, T., Salazar, A.
and Rahman, K.: “Rock Strength from Core and Logs:
Where We Stand and Ways to Go,” SPE paper 121972,
presented at the SPE EUROPEC/EAGE Annual Conference,
Amsterdam, the Netherlands, June 8-11, 2009.
3. Kuncoro, B., Ulumuddin, B. and Palar, S.: “Sand Control
for Unconsolidated Reservoirs,” paper presented at the
National Symposium, Jakarta, Indonesia, October 3-5,
4. Vo, L. and Styler, J.W.: “An Assessment of Emerging
Technologies for Production Optimization in Saudi Aramco
– Southern Area Production Engineering,” SPE paper
93369, presented at the 14
Middle East Oil & Gas Show,
Manama, Bahrain, March 12-15, 2005.
5. Saudi Aramco internal documentation, 2009: ESS
Completion for Unconsolidated Sand Formation.
6. Weatherford Completion Systems publication, 2001:
Geomechanics and Expandable Sand Screens.
7. Al-Qahtani, M.Y. and Rahim, Z.: “A Mathematical
Algorithm for Modeling Geomechanical Rock Properties of
the Khuff and Pre-Khuff Reservoirs in Ghawar Field,” SPE
paper 68194, presented at the SPE Middle East Oil Show,
Manama, Bahrain, March 17-21, 2001.
confirm the effectiveness of the completion technology
adopted to develop the ‘Unayzah-A reservoir.
Several methodologies have been tested to optimize gas pro -
duction in a sand prone, deep gas environment. Frac pac
technology that was implemented initially worked reasonably
well, but to mitigate risks in a frac pac system installation and
also to adapt to the variation of reservoir parameters over
time (decline of reservoir pressure and increase in condensate
dropout), drilling horizontal wells and completing them with
an ESS has become the preferred choice of application. Several
wells have now been completed using an ESS, and production
data analyses indicate well stability, enhanced rate and sus -
tained performance. The following comments and conclusions
are derived from the experiences learned from laboratory
analyses, building the geomechanical model, selecting the ESS
type, and finally implementing the tech nology in the field.
1. A comprehensive assessment of formation properties using
geological, reservoir, and geomechanical data is required
for optimized field development.
2. The sanding problem can be best handled with a downhole
3. Frac pac is a viable sand control mechanism if zonal
isolation, avoiding the GWC, and non-Darcy skin are not
of concern, although the non-Darcy flow skin factor can
reduce the well rate significantly.
Fig. 15. Production test showing sustained rate from an ESS completed well.
Production Time, Days
Fig. 16. Inflow performance curves showing rates from the ESS completed wells in
the ‘Unayzah-A reservoir.
0 5 10 15 20 25 30
Gas Rate, MMscfd
SAUDI ARAMCO JOURNAL OF TECHNOLOGY FALL 2010 53
8. Rahim, Z., Al-Qahtani, M.Y., Bartko, K.M., Goodman,
H., Hilarides, W.K. and Norman, W.D.: “The Role of
Geomechanical Earth Modeling in the Unconsolidate Pre-
Khuff Field Completion Design for Saudi Arabian Gas
Wells,” SPE paper 84258, presented at the SPE Annual
Technical Conference and Exhibition, Denver, Colorado,
October 5-8, 2003.
9. Saudi Aramco internal documentation, 2003: Computing
Safe Drawdown Pressure for Unconsolidated Sand
Dr. Zillur Rahim is a Petroleum
Engineering Consultant with Saudi
Aramco’s Gas Reservoir Management
Division. His expertise includes well
stimulation design, analysis and
optimization, pressure transient test
analysis, gas field development,
planning, and reservoir management. Prior to joining Saudi
Aramco, Rahim worked as a Senior Reservoir Engineer
with Holditch & Associates, Inc., and later with
Schlumberger Reservoir Technologies in College Station,
TX, where he used to consult on reservoir engineering, well
stimulation, reservoir simulation, and tight gas
qualification for national and international companies. He
has taught petroleum engineering industry courses and has
developed analytical and numerical models to history
match and forecast production and well testing data, and
to simulate 3D hydraulic fracture propagation, proppant
transport, and acid reaction and penetration.
Rahim has authored 50 Society of Petroleum Engineers
(SPE) papers and numerous in-house technical documents.
He is a member and a technical editor of SPE and the
Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering (JPSE).
Rahim is a registered Professional Engineer in the State of
Texas, and a mentor for Saudi Aramco’s Technologist
Development Program (TDP). He is also a technical advisor
for the Production Technology team and an instructor for
the Reservoir Stimulation and Hydraulic Fracturing course
for the Upstream Professional Development Center (UPDC)
of Saudi Aramco.
Rahim received his B.S. degree from the Institut Algerien
du Petrole, Boumerdes, Algeria, and his M.S. and Ph.D.
degrees from Texas A&M University, College Station, TX,
all in Petroleum Engineering.
Bandar H. Al-Malki joined Saudi
Aramco in 1998 as a Production
Engineer, working in the gas fields. He
is currently the Supervisor of the
HRDH Unit in the Gas Reservoir
Management Division. This role
requires him to monitor the production
capacity of the plants, while optimizing the productivity of
the wells and preventing wasted time and resources.
Bandar received his B.S. degree in Petroleum Engineering
from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals
(KFUPM), Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. In 2004, he earned his
M.S. degree in Petroleum Engineering from the Imperial
College, London, U.K., focusing on gas condensate
54 FALL 2010 SAUDI ARAMCO JOURNAL OF TECHNOLOGY
Adnan A. Al-Kanaan is the General
Supervisor for the Gas Reservoir
Management Division where he heads
a team of more than 30 petroleum
engineering professionals to meet the
Kingdom’s increasing gas demand for
its internal consumption. He started
his career at the Saudi Shell Petrochemical Company as a
Senior Process Engineer. Adnan then joined Saudi Aramco
in 1997 and was an integral part of the technical team
responsible for the on-time initiation of the two major
Hawiyah and Haradh Gas plants that currently process 4
BCF of gas per day. He also manages Karan and Wasit, the
two giant offshore gas increment projects, with expected
total production capacity of 4.3 BCF of gas per day.
Adnan has 13 years of diversified experience in reservoir
management, field development, reserves assessment, gas
production engineering, and mentoring young
professionals. His areas of interest include reservoir
engineering, well test analysis, simulation modeling,
reservoir characterization, fracturing analysis, and reservoir
Adnan received his B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering
from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals
(KFUPM), Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
He is a member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers